The world is a complicated place, and it can be a challenge to interpret new data as signifying continuity rather than change. A Wall Street Journal article from last month added to the chorus of recent analysts who inferred from surveys that the American people desire a more disengaged foreign policy. Recent findings from the Better World Campaign offer an alternative: while the American public might like the principle of disengagement, they’re unhappy with it in practice. Asking more detailed survey questions about the value of the United Nations, the Better World Campaign survey tells us that multilateralism is alive and well. The findings also underscore the challenge of selling multilateralism to the American people.

The case against engagement comes out in answers to simple questions about whether America should be more active or less active in the world. In the Wall Street Journal poll, the percentage of respondents answering ‘less active’ has more than tripled (to 47%) since 2001. The percentage of respondents agreeing that the US should “mind its own business internationally” is at the highest levels recorded in Pew surveys. The Better World Campaign confirmed these findings, as 61% of respondents claimed that the US should be less actively involved in world affairs. This represented an increase by ten percentage points since 2007, and this view was held by Democrats and Republicans in almost equal measure. With President Obama set to outline his vision of American foreign policy at a speech at West Point tomorrow, these are some sobering findings.

Disengagement is a word, not a policy. There are plenty of findings in the Better World Campaign survey that confront this “less is more” formulation head-on. Survey respondents continue to recognize the value of the United Nations, as the UN’s favorability ratings remain both strong (59%) and stable over time since this survey was first launched in 2009. When respondents were asked if the UN is still needed today, more than 2/3 of respondents agreed, a percentage which was basically unchanged since 2009.

More than just valuing the UN’s role, survey respondents recognize that it helps to advance US interests. When asked how important it is for the US to maintain an active role in the UN, 86% of respondents felt that it was either very or somewhat important, which represents a 1% increase from the first poll in 2009. While the public is desirous of more attention on domestic policy, it’s not the case that this should come at the expense of multilateral engagement through the UN.

The claim that is multilateralism is alive and well is further strengthened when we look at how survey respondents characterize possible foreign policy strategies. Respondents were asked to rank various strategies on a feeling thermometer, and phrases such as “international cooperation” polled almost nine times higher than terms such as “isolationism” or “America going it alone.” Despite the current national challenges, respondents preferred statements connoting an engaged US over one that did not work in partnership with other countries.

While survey respondents noted the value of the UN and the importance of a strong role for the US within the United Nations, the findings also revealed an enduring challenge. 56% of survey respondents report that they know either “just some” or “very little” about the UN and its work, and 1/3 of respondents report that they had not seen, read, or heard anything about the UN. This underscores the real challenge of outreach. While these findings are an important corrective to a deepening narrative, future progress on sustaining the US commitment to multilateralism requires a broad effort. Without better educating the public on how international organizations can help the US efficiently solve transsovereign problems, it will be as easy for politicians to misread the polls as pundits, and missteps will inevitably result.

Martin S. Edwards

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